Joanna Burt-Kinderman: A teacher speaks up for common core math

By By Joanna Burt-Kinderman

I have been a math teacher and coach of other teachers for 15 years, and I am an advocate for the new Common Core Next Generation math standards.

Too much of the debate about Common Core stems around viral postings of wacky homework assignments. These assignments are ridiculous. They are not Common Core.

Common Core is a set of standards, carefully articulating which skills, concepts and fluencies students should be exposed to, and which they should master at each grade level.

Some school systems who tried to implement this hastily, without supporting teachers, chose instructional materials that are ill-written, confusing, and mangle the message. Every time a parent sends me one of these videos, I say, “You’re right. That’s awful! You should be the first to complain when your students are asked to do nonsensical lengthy procedures that aren’t about reasoning! But this is a poor workbook, and it’s not Common Core. You won’t find this at corestandards.org.”

No growth occurs on any level without some aches. We accept this on the sports fields, in our spiritual lives, as we grow through life’s struggles. Yet in classrooms, we are objecting to something that is stretching our teachers and students.

We are considering “opting out” before we’ve given a set of educational standards that are crafted through a long process of consensus of some of the very best minds in education (including West Virginia voices!) an honest try.

While many counties in West Virginia are just beginning to implement these standards, and most teachers haven’t had sufficient training and don’t have necessary supports (including top-notch instructional materials), there are a handful of counties in West Virginia that decided to get an early start on implementation.

Pocahontas County is one of them. Talk to any of our middle and high school math teachers. Visit any of our classes, and you’ll see math classes where kids are active, thinking and growing as learners and users of mathematics.

In Pocahontas County, we are in our third year of implementing the Next Generation math standards, so we are a bit ahead of the curve of most West Virginia schools in terms of experience (and bumps in the road!). Our leaders have taken a long view, giving teachers the time and support to make steady and progressive change in our classrooms.

It has been hard work, there have been growing pains, but we are seeing remarkable results. These are won through building intensive, intentional professional development to support teachers in building vibrant, connected classrooms where students engage in building deep understandings of the big ideas of mathematics.

This is such an important time to make careful decisions for West Virginia’s future. West Virginia has consistently been in the very bottom of rankings for student success in mathematics, particularly at the secondary level. Here, we have opportunity to learn from, and collaborate with, schools across the country. We have an opportunity to stretch ourselves, to grow in the direction that will provide a new world of opportunities for our children.

My little girls are 5 and 7, so these issues could not be more personal to me. I decided to raise them here for many reasons, but amongst them is that West Virginians are tough. We do not give up when a challenge is big. We move mountains for our kids.

Please don’t take this opportunity from our children. Yes, this transition will be tough, even if we do it right. We need to invest in the best resources, give teachers the time and collaborative space they need to work towards the changes they need to make, and fund real and substantive outreach to parents. Perhaps we could even take the dollars allocated to the extensive amount of testing we do for a year or two and funnel it instead towards learning for teachers.

Access to a world-class math education is an issue of civil rights. Those who have it will have doors opened that are shut to those who don’t. We can’t imagine the jobs that will exist when my girls are in their 20s, but we are assured that they will be jobs that require critical thinking, reasoning, computer and data prowess.

West Virginia has some of the most valuable resources in the nation — in natural resources, in our clean water, and also in our children. It is our children who need the greatest investment to ensure we can carefully maximize the potential of everything else. Lowering the bar that has been set high across the nation for our children will be shortchanging their possibilities, shortchanging their potential, and limiting West Virginia’s future.

Joanna Burt-Kinderman is a math instructional coach for Pocahontas County Schools.

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